Building an RAF Special Operations Force


Would an RAF ‘Commando Force’ be a Useful Capability, beyond what they already have in terms of special forces support?

The RAF, as many modern air forces have, has become increasingly sophisticated. However, if the UK goes down the ‘Global Guardian’ route the RAF’s role would be largely relegated to transport, ISR and CAS.

Typically, these types of operation put many resources into training and mentoring local forces so they can transition to a full capability able to support themselves. This is exactly what is happening in Afghanistan today and Iraq some years ago but in these activities, the RAF has a relatively limited role, for example, the recent training of Afghan pilots on Mil 17’s.

For ground operations, small arms and support weapons are generally less sophisticated and costly fast air or UAV’s so the RAF simply does not have the means to play a greater role in mentoring local forces in the application of airpower.

Reactive, high tempo CAS is one area where there exists little room for second best or try again tomorrow but armed ISR and transport are typical missions that could be devolved to local forces and with the right blend of equipment, time and expertise could produce decisive contributions to joint operations.

Some local forces will, of course, be much better placed than others; the Iraqis for example already had a relatively sophisticated air force so this would be a completely different proposition to having to teach English before even basic flight training, as with the Afghans.

Could an RAF Commando or Mentoring Force not only contribute to the skilling of local forces as part of a comprehensive mentoring approach but also offer something to UK forces operating in similar conditions?

Any capability we have must have applicability in a range of conflict types although we must also be pragmatic and ensure that gold plating does not make any equipment unsuitable.

The USAF already have these capabilities in place but are looking to increase them with two acquisition programmes, these will include about 100 light attack/armed reconnaissance aircraft (LAAR) and 60 light transports, the so-called, light military aircraft (LiMA), optimised for irregular warfare operations.

The LAAR is the programme that has generated the most interest with the obvious contenders like the Super Tucano and Beechcraft AT6 prompting strong reactions on either side of the opinion divide. I think there is room for such an aircraft as long as costs can be contained and we don’t get tempted to use them in CAS roles.

Despite receiving little attention but arguably of more significance and value is the light military aircraft (LiMA) concept. This must be able to operate from austere locations, lift 6 passengers of 800kg plus of cargo, have a cargo door and a range of 900nm on internal fuel. Missions will include airlift of cargo and personnel, airdrop, forward operating location re-supply and medical/casualty evacuation. These types of missions will integrate the local forces with coalition air management in a graduated and less restrictive manner than getting them to start with combat operations in support of mixed forces on the ground.

When helping local forces defend themselves and to contribute to joint operations key factors are cost and simplicity of operation and a recognition that support infrastructure will in many cases be as austere as the locations they will have to work from.

Contributing not only to supporting local forces this type of capability can bring something to UK operations as well, mainly their cost. If we recognise the cost additions of yet another type in service there must be cost savings elsewhere. These cost savings will come from not having to use larger aircraft like C130 or A400 where a smaller type will do but perhaps, more importantly, being able to reduce pressure on an extremely hard working support helicopter fleet. By freeing up some Chinook and Merlin flights their flying hours can be devoted more to offensive operations or simply reduced, either way, a cost-saving of one form or another. In peacetime, this capability might contribute to basic training, Army cooperation, disaster relief, airdropping and parachute training.

The mentoring and training capability could be comprised of a mix of regular and sponsored reserves and need not be expensive. In addition to aircrew training and equipment, we would also need to consider engineering, force protection training (RAF Regiment), Casevac, air management, aircraft/cargo handling and airdropping.

Post-conflict, we might transfer the equipment to the local force as a gesture of goodwill.

What are the equipment options?

Fortunately, the civilian and military marketplace has many aircraft that could fulfil this role with ease, with no need for expensive and time-consuming development programmes. Air support operations in austere locations worldwide have resulted in many options for an RAF Commando Logistics force.

Having a quick cast around here are a few options for discussion, some larger than others so they are not exactly comparable to each other but worth a look. Performance figures are subject to environmental conditions and not all of them are actually in production.

Group 1 (Twin Engine)

PZL M28 Skytruck
The M28 is a licence produced copy of the Antonov AN-28, produced by PZL Mielec in Poland. The US special forces have reportedly taken delivery of 10 of these aircraft.
Passengers, 18
Cargo, 2,300kg

Antonov AN38
The AN38 is an enlarged version of the AN28 with a greater payload, range and larger cabin amongst many improvements although not many have been produced.
Passengers, 27
Cargo, 2,500kg

Sukhoi SU80
The SU80 is a relatively modern aircraft yet still retaining the simple design and maintenance of Russian equipment although as with the AN38, not many have been produced.
Passengers, 30
Cargo, 3,300kg

Already well established in Afghanistan the C212 is perhaps a more natural choice for western forces and is in widespread use.
Passengers, 25
Cargo, 3,000kg

Gippsland Aeronautics Nomad
Perhaps a bit of a wildcard but GA have recently resurrected the GAF Nomad
Passengers, 12
Cargo, 1,500kg

Harbin Y-12
A Chinese twin-turboprop aircraft, the Y12 is in widespread service.
Passengers, 17
Cargo, 5,700kg

Britten Norman Defender
Actually still in service with UK forces and many others around the world, the Britten Norman Defender is the only one in this list manufactured in the UK.
Passengers, 9
Cargo, 700kg

Beechcraft King Air 350
The King Air 350 is already in service with the UK providing the basis for the RAF’s Shadow R1 ISR aircraft and a number of other types so would make an obvious choice for logistics commonality but it is relatively sophisticated and short-field performance is not brilliant.
Passengers, 13
Cargo, 1,200kg

Viking DHC-6 Twin Otter
The Twin Otter has legendary toughness and is available with floats which makes its deployment options a little wider.
Passengers, 20
Cargo, 2,00kg

Group 2 (Single Engine)

Viking DHC-2T Turbo Beaver
The Turbo Beaver is a rugged aircraft that can be fitted with skis or floats for flexibility of operation
Passengers, 8
Cargo, 1,000kg

Turbine Explorer 750T
The 750T is a new design based on the well established Explorer 500
Passengers, 16
Cargo, 1,800kg

Gippsland Aeronautics GA8 Airvan
Manufactured in Australia the Airvan is relatively small in comparison with others on this list
Passengers, 7
Cargo, 800kg

Cessna Grand Caravan
Benefiting from a huge installed base and already in service with the Iraqi Air Force where it fulfils a number of roles including armed ISR the Caravan is regarded as the front runner for the USAF LiMA competition
Passengers, 14
Cargo, 685kg

Pacific Aerospace P-750
One of the more unusual aircraft in this group the P-750 is capable of incredible short take-off and landings.
Passengers, 10
Cargo, 1,900kg

Pilatus PC-12 NG
The PC12 is a familiar and well-used aircraft for operations from austere locations
Passengers, 9
Cargo, 450kg

Quest Kodiak
The Kodiak is another single-engine backwoods aircraft that is very rugged
Cargo, 1,300kg


Air mobility is vital for any counter-insurgency or asymmetric conflict, the RAF could at a very reasonable cost create an effective capability that would return a lot of capabilities. Although it would be desirable to have something akin to the USAF Special Operations Command the UK should set its sights a little lower and excel at one area, in my opinion, air mobility.

So, what would you cut to pay for it and don’t say first-class travel for Generals!

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